Housekeeping: A Novel


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Sylvie, the principal character in ''Housekeeping,'' is looking after, or looking past, or looking around, two adolescent girls her sister has abandoned in Fingerbone. Fingerbone is one of those towns that seem to be lost between the West and the Middle West. As Miss Robinson puts it, Fingerbone is ''chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather. The two girls - Ruth, the narrator, and Lucille - are afraid that Sylvie is going to abandon them too, that she will disappear as mysteriously as she appeared.

As Ruth says, Sylvie ''seldom removed her coat, and every story she told had to do with a train or bus station. Everytime Sylvie goes out of the house, the girls think she is not coming back and they pull on overcoats and follow her. Sylvie doesn't always sleep in the house, and Ruth says, ''I was reassured by her sleeping on the lawn, and now and then in the car. It seemed to me that if she could remain transient here, she would not have to leave. Sylvie likes to sit in the dark, ''enjoying the evening,'' as she puts it.

On one of their walks together, she takes Ruth to see a ruined house in a beautiful valley. The people who built the house never paused to observe that, because of the topography of the valley, the sun never reached the house or grounds. Sylvie bought blue velveteen ballet slippers, adorned with sequins, for the girls to wear to school.

As Ruth says, she ''inhabited a millennial present. To her, the deteriorations of things were always a fresh surprise, a disappointment not to be dwelt on. Before Sylvie, the girls were looked after by two great-aunts who left their subterranean room in a hotel in another city to come and do their duty.

Housekeeping: A Novel

But, Ruth tells us, the weight of the snow on the roof of the house in Fingerbone was ''a source of grave and perpetual anxiety to my great-aunts, who were accustomed to a brick building, and to living below ground. Their conversation seemed ''always to be the elaboration and ornamentation of the consensus between them, which was as intricate and well-tended as a termite castle. The girls were quite small when their mother left them, with a box of graham crackers, on the porch in Fingerbone. Miss Robinson works with light, dark, water, heat, cold, textures, sounds and smells. Fragments of transparent ice wobbled on the waves they made and, when the water was calm again, knitted themselves up like bits of a reflection.

One of the boys swam out forty feet from the bridge and then down to the old lake, feeling his way down the wall, down the blind, breathless stone, headfirst, and then pushing out from the foot. But the thought of where he was suddenly terrified him, and he leaped toward the air, brushing something with his leg as he did. He reached down and put his hand on a perfectly smooth surface, parallel to the bottom, but, he thought, seven or eight feet above it.

A window. The train had landed on its side. He could not reach it a second time.

Housekeeping: A Novel - Marilynne Robinson - Google книги

The water bore him up. He said only that smooth surface, of all the things he touched, was not overgrown or hovered about by a cloud of something loose, like silt. This boy was an ingenious liar, a lonely boy with a boundless desire to ingratiate himself. His story was neither believed nor disbelieved. By the time he had swum back to the bridge and was pulled up and had told the men there where he had been, the water was becoming dull and opaque, like cooling wax.

Shivers flew when a swimmer surfaced, and the membrane of ice that formed where the ice was torn looked new, glassy, and black. All the swimmers came in. By evening the lake there had sealed itself over. This catastrophe left three new widows in Fingerbone: my grandmother, and the wives of two elderly brothers who owned a dry-goods store. These two old women had lived in Fingerbone thirty years or more, but they left, one to live with a married daughter in North Dakota and the other to find any friends or kin in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, which she had left as a bride.

They said they could no longer live by the lake. They said the wind smelled of it, and they could taste it in the drinking water, and they could not abide the smell, the taste, or the sight of it.

They did not wait for the memorial service and rearing of the commemorative stone, when scores of mourners and sightseers, led by three officers of the railroad, walked out on the bridge between handrails mounted for the occasion, and dropped wreaths on the ice. It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below.

When the ground is plowed in the spring, cut and laid open, what exhales from the furrows but that same, sharp, watery smell. The wind is watery, and all the pumps and creeks and ditches smell of water unalloyed by any other element.

At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground.

And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains. It seems that my grandmother did not consider leaving. She had lived her whole life in Fingerbone. And though she never spoke of it, and no doubt seldom thought of it, she was a religious woman.

That is to say that she conceived of life as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that one's destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in the ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting.

She accepted the idea that at some time she and my grandfather would meet and take up their lives again, without the worry of money, in a milder climate. She hoped that he would somehow have acquired a little more stability and common sense. With him this had so far not been an effect of age, and she distrusted the idea of transfiguration. The bitter thing about his death, since she had a house and a pension and the children were almost grown, was that it seemed to her a kind of defection, not altogether unanticipated.

How many times had she waked in the morning to find him gone? And sometimes for whole days he would walk around singing to himself in a thin voice, and speak to her and his children as a very civil man would speak to strangers.

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And now he had vanished finally. When they were reunited, she hoped he would be changed, substantially changed, but she did not set her heart on it.

In praise of older books: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980)

Musing thus, she set out upon her widowhood, and became altogether as good a widow as she had been a wife. After their father's death, the girls hovered around her, watched everything she did, followed her through the house, got in her way. Molly was sixteen that winter; Helen, my mother, was fifteen; and Sylvie was thirteen. When their mother sat down with her mending, they would settle themselves around her on the floor, trying to be comfortable, with their heads propped against her knees or her chair, restless as young children.

They would pull fringe off the rug, pleat her hem, pummel one another sometimes, while they talked indolently about school or worked out the endless minor complaints and accusations that arose among them. After a while they would turn on the radio and start brushing Sylvie's hair, which was light brown and heavy and hung down to her waist. The older girls were expert at building it into pompadours with ringlets at ear and nape. Sylvie crossed her legs at the ankles and read magazines. When she got sleepy she would go off to her room and take a nap, and come down to supper with her gorgeous hair rumpled and awry.

Nothing could induce vanity in her.

When suppertime came, they would follow their mother into the kitchen, set the table, lift the lids off the pans. And then they would sit around the table and eat together, Molly and Helen fastidious, Sylvie with milk on her lip. Even then, in the bright kitchen with white curtains screening out the dark, their mother felt them leaning toward her, looking at her face and her hands. Never since they were small children had they clustered about her so, and never since then had she been so aware of the smell of their hair, their softness, breathiness, abruptness.

It filled her with a strange elation, the same pleasure she had felt when any one of them, as a sucking child, had fastened her eyes on her face and reached for her other breast, her hair, her lips, hungry to touch, eager to be filled for a while and sleep. She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace.

She knew a thousand songs. Her bread was tender and her jelly was tart, and on rainy days she made cookies and applesauce. In the summer she kept roses in a vase on the piano, huge, pungent roses, and when the blooms ripened and the petals fell, she put them in a tall Chinese jar, with cloves and thyme and sticks of cinnamon. Her children slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts, and in the morning her curtains filled with light the way sails fill with wind.

Of course they pressed her and touched her as if she had just returned after an absence. Not because they were afraid she would vanish as their father had done, but because his sudden vanishing had made them aware of her. When she had been married a little while, she concluded that love was half a longing of a kind that possession did nothing to mitigate.


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Once, while they were still childless, Edmund had found a pocket watch on the shore. The case and the crystal were undamaged, but the works were nearly consumed by rust.

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He opened the watch and emptied it, and where the face had been he fitted a circle of paper on which he had painted two seahorses. He gave it to her as a pendant, with a chain through it, but she hardly ever wore it because the chain was too short to allow her to look at the seahorses comfortably. She worried that it would be damaged on her belt or in her pocket.

Housekeeping: A Novel Housekeeping: A Novel
Housekeeping: A Novel Housekeeping: A Novel
Housekeeping: A Novel Housekeeping: A Novel
Housekeeping: A Novel Housekeeping: A Novel
Housekeeping: A Novel Housekeeping: A Novel
Housekeeping: A Novel Housekeeping: A Novel
Housekeeping: A Novel Housekeeping: A Novel
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